April 30, 2007

Allahabad is a microcosm of urban UP

At the Indian Coffee House in Allahabad's Civil Lines, men sit around rickety tables to sip coffee and talk politics. Until the 1980s, the city's influential intelligentsia met here to discuss politics and culture. What they thought and argued echoed in the public culture of the city, and across the Hindi heartland. It ought to be so since among the luminaries who would held durbar were politicians like Ram Manohar Lohia and writers like Firaq, Nirala, Sumitranandan Pant and Mahadevi Varma. Under the Congress umbrella, the city appeared to be at peace with itself.
Mandal and Masjid changed the discourse in Allahabad, and in UP, forever. Debates at the Coffee House have continued, but the Civil Lines has ceased to set the political and cultural agenda for the city. Political power has shifted elsewhere. The old cosmopolitanism of the city represented by the Civil Lines, where people discussed socialism at the Coffee House, watched Hollywood releases at the Palace cinema, bought the best European fiction from Wheelers, and heard masters of Hindustani classical music at Prayag Sangeet Samiti, is history. That twin-stranded cosmopolitanism — one that reflected the years of colonial rule and another that spoke for a Sanskritised and Hindustani cultural idiom — has faded. It failed to recognise the emergence of new classes and castes that had acquired wealth during the green revolution and political power in the aftermath of the Mandal campaign. There was a genuine need to democratise the political and cultural space, but the process towards it lacked the cultural imagination to build on the past. Allahabad University which was a fountainhead of the city's cosmopolitanism had over the years declined and failed to provide the intellectual leadership to the forces of change. The impact has been disastrous for the city. The old order is dead, the new order is yet to acquire legitimacy.
Ahead of the assembly elections, change is the buzz word in the city. Of course, people are unsure about the political agency that may ring in the change. However, it appears that there is a consensus for change, and the yearning for change does not include a demand to reverse the process of opening up the political and social spaces, despite its many failings. The increasing acceptance of Mayawati among non-Dalits, particularly among the young, is an indication of the new mindset. She has come to represent order in a middle-class sense. Mayawati is talked about as someone who can use the stick and get the bad boys to behave.
There appears to be an economic logic behind this cry for order. A new wave of 'cosmopolitanism' is slowly enveloping the city, in the form of malls and McDonald's. There is massive boom in real estate and credit outflow, symbolised by the hectic construction activity, ATMs, mobile phones, and the numerous vehicles on city roads. How does one explain the construction boom in the city? There is hardly any industry left in Allahabad. Chronic power shortages, decline of the public sector, and labour problems are cited to explain the death of Naini, the city's industrial hub situated across the Yamuna. However, people point to three sources of money in the city. One, the mafia (read politicians here) routing the wealth it has gained from government contracts and extortion into real estate. Two, corruption in the bureaucracy. State funds meant for development are siphoned off to personal accounts. Three, easy credit. Cheap loans and the service sector have developed a symbiotic relationship. Banks and the telecom sector have generated employment opportunities, mostly casual and contractual, which in turn are feeding the retail sector.
The forces of the market are also influencing social relations. A young journalist said the malls and upmarket eateries would survive, irrespective of the source of their capital, because there is no other public space in the city for youngsters with disposable income. Existing public spaces like parks have not shed their conservative character to welcome a new generation of boys and girls shaped by the cultural logic of the market. Similarly, the apartment complexes are changing the social matrix of the city.
Beneficiaries of these social changes want a political dispensation that can consolidate the emerging economy. The Samajwadi Party is perceived by many as having failed in this task. It has not helped SP that many people see party MP and local strongman, Atiq Ahmed, as the face of the city's underbelly. However, a mere change of government is unlikely to change the grammar of politics for the better. A public culture that doesn't confuse massification with democracy is required to facilitate a makeover of the political and civil society. The leader of a Left-wing cultural front mentioned the massive response to a cinema of resistance festival in the city. But, is any form of radical culture possible in a political economy that is dependent on the mafia? he wondered.
In the past, the successful politician in the city was known for oratorial skills, ability to command caste loyalty or raise funds. Now, money and muscle power have become the primary ingredients to court success. This 'neta' is the new political elite. He is disinterested in public debates or civic politics, his patronage network operates through the decentralisation of crime. Can he be the harbinger of change? Or will the people's will force him to change?
Today's Allahabad is an urban culture in the making. There is hope, nostalgia and despair in the narratives of those living in the city. These narratives are, perhaps, representative of the chaos and confusion reigning in UP's urban centres as people get ready to elect a new government.

April 28, 2007

The day of the spider: Gordon Brown

ANY week now, Tony Blair will announce the date on which he is going to resign. No one knows what the date will be; but equally, no one doubts that Gordon Brown, the chancellor, will succeed him. David Miliband, the environment secretary and most plausible alternative, says he will not run against him. Two candidates from Labour's left have garnered only token support. Nothing, it seems, will prevent Mr Brown from becoming leader of the Labour Party and leader of his country two months from now.

Yet beyond his loyal band of supporters, few people in Britain feel enthusiastic about the prospect. How is he so entitled, yet so unloved? Part of the answer lies in his personality: his unbending ambition, power of concentration, moral certainty and sheer political grip. Part goes back to 1992, when Labour last lost a general election and learned a crucial lesson from it. And a third part lies in how Mr Brown has worked with his colleagues—above all, with Mr Blair—and in his record as chancellor of the exchequer.

April 22, 2007

You Are What You Grow

A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person's wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more "energy dense" than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them "junk." Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?


April 19, 2007

As Mumbai Grows, Commuter Trains Turn Deadly

Suburban Sprawl Strains
Capacity of Old Equipment;
Saving Mr. Malwankar
April 19, 2007; Page A1

MUMBAI, India -- There was a time, just a few years ago, when Jagdish Malwankar had no problem getting a seat on the Valsad express commuter train that takes him to work in the city center.

Today, Mumbai's trains are so overcrowded that one morning in January when he stumbled getting off a train, 10 people fell on him and he broke his foot. Another day recently, in the crush to board, fellow commuters shoved him onto the tracks. Two train cars passed over him before anyone noticed he had fallen.

Often, Mr. Malwankar, who is an education inspector for the western state of Maharashtra, witnesses something much worse. In January, he says, he saw two fellow commuters fall off the roof of the train and get sliced in half. And he saw a body on the platform missing its arms and legs. "Once or twice a month, I see people killed or injured on the tracks," says the 45-year-old Mr. Malwankar.

India's economic growth in the past several years has brought new wealth and a higher standard of living to many in this metropolis of 18 million. But it also has created suburban sprawl that is adding more people to a rail network that has seen few new trains or tracks added in the past 30 years.

Indian officials have a new term to describe the 2.5 times capacity crowds that now ride at peak hours: Super-Dense Crush Load. That is, 550 people crammed into a car built for 200.

The result is what may be the world's most dangerous commute. According to Mumbai police: 3,404 people, or about 13 each weekday, were killed in 2006 scrambling across the tracks, tumbling off packed trains, slipping off platforms, or sticking their heads out open doors and windows for air.

The toll has been increasing as daily ridership has increased to more than six million people a day. Last year's tally was up 10% from the year before. Accidents are so common that stations stock sheets to cover corpses.

The commute in many Indian cities has been getting worse as throngs flock from the countryside to urban centers in search of work, and housing developments create a new suburbia.

In Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, the railway system has long been a problem. But with ticket prices set artificially low by the federal government -- the one-hour trip from the southern tip of Mumbai to Mr. Malwankar's station costs less than 25 cents -- it is a money-losing business.

The federal and state governments have squabbled in the past over who is responsible for improvements. Now, a $2 billion upgrade is under way, partly financed by a loan from the World Bank. But that will take at least another five years to finish.

Meanwhile, the network's tracks carry 20,000 passengers a day for each kilometer, or 0.62 mile, of rail, eclipsing even Tokyo -- famous for its gloved pushers who cram passengers into cars -- where the system carries 15,000 per kilometer. In New York, the Long Island Rail Road's comparable number is 420, according to the Mumbai Railway Vikas Corp.

Even after the current expansion plans add 113 miles, or 22%, to the existing railways and 147, or 74%, more trains, Mumbai's commuter trains will still have to carry 1.5 times their capacity during peak hours.

The overcrowding has overwhelmed Mumbai's police. Around 200 officers spend most of their time dealing with deaths on the rails, says R.E. Pawar, a deputy commissioner of police in charge of the railways. The police have to first collect the bodies and bring them to the hospital to be confirmed dead by doctors. "Even if they are in four pieces, we are not able to certify whether they are dead," says Mr. Pawar.

Officers then take photos and clothing samples to put into a gruesome computer database so the victims' families can identify the bodies. Morgues don't have enough refrigerated spaces to keep all the bodies, and after seven days the police bury or cremate bodies. Even with the database, more than a third of the bodies are never claimed.

Many of the railway casualties are people crossing the tracks, too rushed or tired to use packed pedestrian overpasses. Mr. Pawar's officers fined more than 30,000 people $22 each for crossing the tracks last year and 1,712 for riding on top of trains. If a family can prove a victim was a commuter not a track trespasser, it is entitled to damages -- usually less than $10,000 -- from the Railway Claims Tribunal.

Frustrated commuters riot a few times each year, rampaging through stations, lighting trains on fire and throwing rocks at police. "The [train] engineer is the first target," Mr. Pawar says. "They catch him and they beat him."

The soft-spoken Mr. Malwankar, who smiles even as he recounts his troubles, usually begins his morning commute at 8:30, when he arrives at Borivali Station 30 minutes early so he can start working his way through the crowds. He bought his apartment near the station, which is at the end of the line in Mumbai's northern suburbs in the hopes it would make it easier for him to get a seat.

"There was nothing here until 2001," he says, pointing outside the window of his simple apartment to a view now obstructed by new apartment blocks. "Now we have a big road, traffic and a mall."

The trains that pull into his end-of-the-line station are already full. That's because commuters have started taking them in the wrong direction so they can grab seats when the trains turn around.

On the platform, Mr. Malwankar hooks up with a group of 10 friends -- government workers and bankers mostly -- whom he met on the commute. They now invite one another to weddings and big family meals. It was one of his commuting companions who yanked the emergency cord when Mr. Malwankar fell under the train.

"It's because of these friends that I still have my life," says Mr. Malwankar. "Nobody else would have noticed and I would have been killed."

Once on the train, he tries to move away from the doors where most of the pushing and shoving happen as people jump on and off the train even while it is moving. Three stations before a change of trains, he starts edging toward the door.

After another ride on a different line, two hours after leaving the house, and in temperatures that can reach 104 degrees in the summer, Mr. Malwankar exits at Chembur Station in the center of the city. Then he walks about five minutes to the office.

Since he broke his foot, Mr. Malwankar says he has considered switching to the first-class cars, which have fans and cushions, but they are only slightly less crowded and cost more than five times as much. Even the coaches exclusively for women are packed, which is one of the reasons his wife decided to retire early from her government job this year.

--Tariq Engineer contributed to this article.

Write to Eric Bellman at eric.bellman@awsj.com


There and Back Again

Last year, Midas, the muffler company, in honor of its fiftieth anniversary, gave an award for America's longest commute to an engineer at Cisco Systems, in California, who travels three hundred and seventy-two miles—seven hours—a day, from the Sierra foothills to San Jose and back. "It's actually exhilarating," the man said of his morning drive. "When I get in, I'm pumped up, ready to go." People like to compare commutes, to complain or boast about their own and, depending on whether their pride derives from misery or efficiency, to exaggerate the length or the brevity of their trip. People who feel they have smooth, manageable commutes tend to evangelize. Those who hate the commute think of it as a core affliction, like a chronic illness. Once you raise the subject, the testimonies pour out, and, if your ears are tuned to it, you begin overhearing commute talk everywhere: mode of transport, time spent on train/interstate/treadmill/homework help, crossword-puzzle aptitude—limitless variations on a stock tale. People who are normally circumspect may, when describing their commutes, be unexpectedly candid in divulging the intimate details of their lives. They have it all worked out, down to the number of minutes it takes them to shave or get stuck at a particular light. But commuting is like sex or sleep: everyone lies. It is said that doctors, when they ask you how much you drink, will take the answer and double it. When a commuter says, "It's an hour, door-to-door," tack on twenty minutes.


April 12, 2007

Men, Boys Separated

CORNING, KS—The male population of a Kansas town was effectively separated into categorically distinct groupings by displaying either bravery or cowardice during a devastating F4 tornado that tore through the tiny community Wednesday, authorities reported.

"John Hastings' little girl was standing out in the middle of the field, but he just crouched under the porch while that burnout Derek McColl ran out to save her," said Nemaha County Sheriff Bert Wyche, 53, whose own manhood was confirmed in the disaster. "Ty Harding is only 6, but took his first steps out of boyhood when he calmly remembered what he learned in school and made sure his mother and dog got to the family cellar safely."

While the classifications of the town's females remained unaffected by their own actions during the tornado, three girls were reportedly made into women during the ensuing power outage.

April 10, 2007

Lethal doses- Nigeria

As dusk draws in on the humid Lagos evening, the policemen check their machineguns one last time and scramble across the dusty courtyard into unmarked cars. A guard briskly opens the metal gates and the convoy lurches out on to the main road: two Peugeots, two pick-up trucks and a minivan, each as dented and battered as the surrounding Nigerian traffic. Mindful of quotas they have to fill, the teams swerve impatiently to avoid ever-present motorcycles and pedlars, using horns, indicators and an occasional flash of weaponry to carve out an implausible third lane between two slow-moving rows of vehicles.

As the bustling Apapa district draws near, the drivers adopt a lower profile. The lead car slows to a halt by an elevated junction, its prey in sight. Two plain-clothes enforcement officers slip out and half-run to their unsuspecting target as the other vehicles pull to the edge of the road. While one agent grabs the suspect, and the other seizes his pink plastic basket piled high with packets of brightly coloured medicines, three of the uniformed police dismount and take up positions nearby, cocking their weapons in a pre-emptive show of force.

It is their first haul in an operation carried out twice a week in Lagos, an essential part of the "Other War on Drugs": the fight against a trade in illegal medicines that is proving almost as lucrative and sometimes as lethal as that in narcotics. The woman behind the strategy is Dora Akunyili, a charismatic pharmacist whose high-profile actions since becoming director-general of Nigeria's food and drug agency in 2001 have sparked threats, arson and assassination attempts, and have been slowed by political opposition, corruption, vested interest and every other obstacle that those behind the international fake medicines business can throw up.

April 6, 2007

Mexico Tries to Save A Big, Fading Oil Field

Cantarell's Drop-Off
Faster Than Expected;
Turning to Technology
April 5, 2007; Page A1

AKAL C OIL PLATFORM, Gulf of Mexico -- In March 1971, a Mexican fisherman named Rudesindo Cantarell took a few geologists from state-run oil company Petróleos Mexicanos to this spot, where he had seen oil slicks. Mr. Cantarell didn't know it, but he had stumbled across one of the largest offshore oil fields ever found.

A few decades and 12 billion barrels of oil later, the field that bears Mr. Cantarell's name is dying, and Pemex, as the state-owned company is known, is struggling to stave off the field's demise. From January 2006 though February 2007, Cantarell lost a staggering one-fifth of its production, with daily output falling to 1.6 million barrels from two million.

The oil industry was stunned. Cantarell, which currently produces one of every 50 barrels of oil on the world market, is fading so fast analysts believe Mexico may become an oil importer in eight years. That would batter Mexico's economy, which depends on oil exports to fund 40% of its government spending.

The continued deterioration of the world's second-biggest field by output would also put pressure on prices on the global oil market, where supplies are barely keeping up with growing demand as it is. And it would leave the U.S. even more dependent on Middle Eastern supplies -- and that much more vulnerable to political tumult in that region.

The demise of Cantarell highlights a global issue: Nearly a quarter of the world's daily oil output of 85 million barrels is pumped from the biggest 20 fields, according to estimates from Wood Mackenzie, a Scotland-based oil consulting firm. And many of those fields, discovered decades ago, could soon follow in Cantarell's footsteps.

It's widely believed that the world's biggest oil fields have already been found. In the decades leading up to the 1970s, the world discovered eight big fields that produced between 500,000 to one million barrels a day, according to Matthew Simmons, a veteran oil industry banker. During the 1970s and 1980s, only two were found. Since then, only one -- the Kashagan field in Kazakhstan -- has the potential to easily top the 500,000 barrel-a-day mark.

"We're very dependent on this handful of super giants. It's a risk."
-- Kate Broughton, head of global oil research at Wood Mackenzie, an oil consultancy based in Edinburgh, Scotland
Read more3 about what Ms. Broughton and other energy industry insiders have to say about the chances of declines at the world's top oil fields.

Two decades ago, about a dozen fields produced more than a million barrels a day. Now there are only four, one of which is Cantarell. The future of two others, discovered more than 50 years ago, remains in question. Some analysts speculate Saudi Arabia's Ghawar, the biggest field by far, could begin a gradual decline within a decade or so. Another, Kuwait's Burgan, is showing signs of maturity. In November of 2005, Kuwait Oil Co. lowered its estimate of the field's sustainable production level to 1.7 million barrels a day from 1.9 million a day.

Replacing big gushers is difficult. Industrialized countries, which tapped out their big fields years earlier, haven't been able to maintain output despite finding large numbers of smaller fields and investing heavily in technology. Alaska production, hurt by declines at the giant Prudhoe Bay field, dropped from 2 million barrels a day in 1988 to a current rate of about 900,000 a day.

'On a Treadmill'

"The world faces a situation where we have production from smaller and smaller fields trying to keep up with declines from the big fields like Cantarell," says Mike Rodgers, a partner at industry consulting firm PFC Energy in Houston. "You're on a treadmill trying to keep up, and you get to a point where you can't make any more forward progress."

Some industry veterans are more sanguine. They argue that technology and high prices are helping tap vast sources of so-called "unconventional" crude oil, such as Canada's tar sands. Plus, they say technologies will also delay any decline in big fields by dislodging billions of barrels of additional oil that used to be too costly or difficult to reach. In Texas and California, fields discovered in the late 19th century are still productive. "The world has managed depending on giant oil fields for the last several decades," says Khalid Al-Roldan, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, based in Washington, D.C.

 The News: Mexico's Cantarell oil field, the world's second largest by output, is beginning to dry up.
 What's at Stake: A big drop at Cantarell could raise oil prices, hurt Mexico's economy, and leave the U.S. even more dependent on Middle Eastern suppliers.
 What's Next: Pemex, Mexico's state-run oil company, is trying to stem the decline. But Cantarell's output is still expected to drop by 10% a year.

But even if there is enough oil under the ground, the politics above the ground get in the way. The vast majority of the world's remaining big fields are in developing countries and run by government-owned oil companies, which are often less efficient than their investor-owned counterparts. State-owned companies in many countries, like those in Venezuela and Iran, are milked by their government for taxes, which reduces their ability to invest in new oil technology. Legal restrictions make it hard for national oil companies to work with foreign firms, cutting them off from techniques used in the rest of the industry.

Mexico's Pemex suffers many of these limitations. Its last two chief executives failed to persuade Mexico's Congress to remove foreign investment restrictions, which are embedded in Mexico's constitution and viewed as an embodiment of Mexican nationalism. Mexico's new president, Felipe Calderón, is expected to try to end the investment restrictions, but he too faces long odds.

Cantarell, like all giant oil fields, boasts an unusual geological history. Geologists say it may have been formed thanks to the asteroid that slammed into the Yucatán peninsula some 65 million years ago -- the same event that is believed to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The impact caused giant cracks underground that allowed oil from previous millennia to accumulate in a single spot.

The field lay unnoticed until Mr. Cantarell, the fisherman, kept getting his nets smeared with oil as he trawled for shrimp in the 1960s. Assuming that the oil came from Pemex operations, he regularly hauled his oil-stained nets hundreds of miles to the nearest Pemex offices in neighboring Veracruz state to seek compensation. Finally, local Pemex officials say, the oil giant grew so exasperated with Mr. Cantarell that it went to check out his story.

The find was spectacular. Unlike most oil fields, which have a thin band of oil-rich rock that stretches for miles in every direction, Cantarell is shaped like a massive underground volcano, with huge amounts of oil in a relatively small place. While Saudi Arabia's Ghawar takes up about 2,700 square miles, Cantarell is just 70 square miles. From one platform, one can see the entire field.

Cantarell's formation made the field easy to exploit. It had so much initial pressure that Pemex's first well at the field produced 36,000 barrels of oil a day, compared with a few hundred barrels at most wells. The field is also in relatively shallow waters -- it is 50 yards deep. The water is so calm one can spot barracuda swimming between the platforms and there is no need for expensive deep-sea platforms. Today, Cantarell needs just 208 wells to produce the equivalent of one-fourth the entire U.S.'s oil output, while the U.S. needs hundreds of thousands of wells for a similar haul.

But the field's abundance also bred a sense of complacency. As is the case in many oil-rich countries, Mexico relied on oil to foot its current spending but gave little thought to what happens when the oil runs out. Last year, Cantarell was responsible for some $25 billion of the $53 billion that Pemex handed over to the government. The steep tax bill has left Pemex chronically short of cash to invest in finding new fields to replace its aging giant.

Cantarell produced about one million barrels a day from 1980 to the mid-1990s, when the field began to slowly lose pressure. This happens to all fields: They begin with enormous natural pressure because they are buried deeply beneath layers of heavy rock. But from the moment a well pricks a field and the oil is taken out, the pressure eases, like letting air out of a balloon.

Squeezing a Balloon

So in 1998, Pemex began injecting massive amounts of nitrogen into the field, which was the oil-field equivalent of squeezing a balloon from the bottom. Output more than doubled to a peak of 2.3 million barrels a day in 2004. That decision was hailed as a technical success, but it was just a temporary fix: It only sucked the field dry faster and set the stage for a steeper decline.

Now, Pemex's lack of money and technology is a handicap in managing the decline. The company didn't have any machinery on its Cantarell platforms to separate water from oil -- standard equipment for most of the rest of the industry. So when water from an underground aquifer began to creep into wells, a common occurrence in an older field, Pemex had to shut down the wells. The company closed any well where the water content rose to between 3% and 5% of the oil. By contrast, there are wells in Texas that are able to produce with 99% water.

"The water problem took us by surprise, but we are handling it," says Gustavo Hernández, Pemex's head of planning at the field. Standing atop an oil platform in the Gulf, Mr. Hernández says the company has overhauled platforms to handle water content of between 8% and 9% and is installing an additional water separation plant this year, allowing it to reopen more wells.

Last year, Pemex drilled its first horizontal wells at the field, something investor-owned oil companies have been using since the early 1980s. Horizontal wells bore down into a field like a traditional vertical well, but then spread out horizontally, extending for miles and allowing a single platform to suck up oil from a much larger area. Pemex plans to drill more such wells this year.

Pemex says steps like these, part of $2.4 billion in investment in the field this year, will slow the field's decline by about half of last year's pace. Instead of a decrease of 400,000 barrels a day, Pemex hopes Cantarell will lose some 200,000 barrels of daily output by year's end. After that, the company says Cantarell will probably continue to decline by roughly 10% a year, down to a daily average of 600,000 in 2013.

Pemex hopes to largely offset Cantarell's decline in the next three years by doing the same kind of nitrogen injection at its second-biggest producer, Ku-Maloob-Zaap, a collection of three fields within eyeshot of Cantarell's platform. (Its Mayan names translate to "nest," "good," and "charcoal.") But Ku-Maloob-Zaap, which is also ranked in the world's top 20 fields, will start its own decline in 2011, according to Pemex.

Pockets of Oil

That leaves Chicontepec, a massive onshore field in eastern Mexico that was discovered in the 1920s, but hasn't been fully developed because it is broken up into tiny pockets of oil that spread out over thousands of square miles in rocky terrain. Pemex says it will need more than 15,000 wells to fully tap the field -- a big stretch for a company that has drilled about 23,000 wells since it was formed in 1938. Developing Chicontepec is also difficult politically; there are scores of nearby towns that may take a dim view of oil production in their backyard.

For now, Pemex is doing what it can to keep Cantarell going as long as possible. A narrowing band of oil means that wells that are drilled at lesser depths have started to hit gas, which is less valuable than oil. Wells that are too deep hit greater amounts of water, which must be extracted from the oil before sale.

"It's a constant game of adjustment," says Mr. Hernández, the field's top planner. In most cases, Pemex tries to replace the production by re-drilling the same well either higher or lower. Still, Mr. Hernandez expects to lose 30 wells this year.

Benjamin Melo, manager of the Akal C platform, tries to assess the future by looking out across the field: "This has been a generous field. And there is still a lot of oil down there. But it won't last forever."